What is your ideal language arts program? The first time that question was posed, it seemed overwhelming and impossible to answer in a short paper. Ideas started flowing concerning the design of the classroom, the role of the teacher, and the rules of the classroom. Specific details were debated and analyzed for hours. For every sub-question we answered, two new questions loomed. Then, we had a sudden insight: perhaps we didn't need to identify the specific details of our ideal language arts program. After all, those specific details changed depending upon the age of the students, the available resources, and the attitudes of the administration. So, we realized that we needed to broaden our focus instead of narrow it. Ronald Cramer listed a series of problems with traditional language arts programs: "it takes ownership out of the hands of students; it limits the audience for writing; it focuses on error as a measure of achievement; it fosters a negative attitude toward writing; it reduces writing to a dull routine; it places students in a passive role; it avoids risk; and it concedes serious writing to the 'more gifted' students -- a fictional aristocracy" (Cramer, 40). With these problems in mind, we were able to create five key principles that will underlie every portion of our ideal language arts program.
The first platform on which we want to build our ideal language arts program is incorporation: we would like to incorporate writing into all subjects taught during the day and all other subjects into writing lessons. Writing should not be viewed as a distinct activity that only happens during an hour-long class period. Ralph Fletcher says, "You don't learn to write by going through a series of preset writing exercises. You learn to write by grappling with a real subject that truly matters to you" (4). He further claims, "in fact, no element of writing can exist in isolation" (4). We will conduct lessons in syntax, in spelling, and in other traditional writing instructional areas; however, we will not leave writing in these short lessons. Our students should be writing throughout the day. They can be creating essays and short stories featuring history facts, science fiction stories and poems incorporating science experiments, and creative nonfiction highlighting math facts. They will learn that writing is necessary for all subjects throughout the day. We will also use prompts during writing lessons that incorporate other subjects. Students may be asked to complete a lesson on commas that focuses on lists for art.
This platform works in conjunction with the second platform: variety. We would like our students to read and write a variety of genres. We do not want students to focus exclusively on one form of literature, neglecting the wide variety of literature available to them. We hope our students will experiment with nonfiction, fiction, poetry, haiku, drama, and biography, to name a few possibilities. We would like our students to create magazine articles, books of poetry, and mini-encyclopedias.
The third principle undergirding our ideal language arts program is ownership. We would like our students to leave our classroom with a sense of ownership over their writing. We would also like our students to leave our classroom with a developed portfolio showing growth, risks, and strengths. Cramer defines portfolios as “organized collections of the written products and processes of reading and writing chosen to be representative of the owner’s best work” (201). These portfolios, if developed with the students, create a sense of ownership among the students. They control what material goes in their portfolios, giving them a stake in their learning. As Cramer says, “a portfolio belongs to the person who creates it. Ownership creates a willingness to participate, independent work habits, and healthy attitudes toward learning” (201). Through the creation of portfolios, students will gain control over their writing and ultimately, their learning. These portfolios will also encourage self-revision. Cramer calls self-revision “the ultimate writing skill” (206). We hope our students will leave our classroom with a good grasp on this important skill.
The fourth principle deals with the mental environment of the classroom: we would like to create an environment where students can take risks, where they can grow in maturity, and where they can feel that it is okay to make mistakes as long as they learn from them. Students must be free to experiment and take chances with their writing. Fletcher highlights the importance of this experimentation. "It's important to recognize the critical place this kind of experimentation has in the writer's development [...]. We need to redefine the success ethic, not just in writing classes but during the entire school day, to mean not only, 'Did you get it right?' but also 'Did you take a chance? Did you try something you've never tried before?" (17). Our students will, hopefully, experiment with their writing: creating different genres, playing with word choices, and expressing their own personal creativity. Linda Christensen also emphasizes the importance of a language arts program that encourages risk taking; "however, the biggest problem with Fred's writing was the fact that he didn't make mistakes. This piece demonstrates his discomfort with writing. He wasn't taking any risks" (174). She goes on to explain why risk-taking is so important: "When more attention is paid to the way something is written or said than to what is said, students' words and thoughts become devalued" (Christensen, 174). We want students to feel free to chase the substance of writing, not worrying about grammar and other traditional roles until later in the writing process; we want students to feel that their words and thoughts are valued for their meaning.
Finally, our fifth principle is voice. We would like our students to feel free to express both their own creativity and their home cultures through their writing. We hope our students use their backgrounds to create their writing; we long to see influences from home culture and dialects peeking through in their writing. Delpit warns about stifling home voices in children's writing. "First, they should recognize that the linguistic form a student brings to school is intimately connected with loved ones, community, and personal identity. To suggest that this form is 'wrong' or, even worse, ignorant, is to suggest that something is wrong with the student and his or her family" (Delpit, 125). We do not want to convince our students that their home culture is wrong; in actuality, we want to embrace and unite both their home culture and their school culture. Fletcher emphasizes the importance of allowing students to highlight their home cultures in their writing. He claims, "voice in writing has much to do with the intimacy between writer and subject: a close distance between the author and what is being written about" (Fletcher, 72). If students are closely connected to the material they are writing about, they create a better personal voice that draws the reader in. Christensen echoes Fletcher's sentiments; "students must be taught to hold their own voices sacred, to ignore the teachers who have made them feel that what they've said is wrong or bad or stupid" (174). We hope our students leave our classroom knowing that their voices are sacred and that their teachers do not feel their writing is wrong or bad or stupid.

Works Cited

Christensen, L. (2002). “Whose Standard? Teaching Standard English.” In B.M.
Power and R.S. Hubbard (Eds.), Language Development: A Reader for Teachers 2nd Ed. (173-177). New York: Prentice.

Cramer, R.L. (2001). Creative Power: The Nature and Nurture of Children’s Writing.
New York: Allyn.

Delpit, L. (2002). “What Should Teachers Do? Ebonics and Culturally Responsive
Instruction.” In B.M. Power and R.S. Hubbard (Eds.), Language Development: A Reader for Teachers 2nd Ed. (124-128). New York: Prentice.

Fletcher, R. (1992). What a Writer Needs. Portsmouth: Heinemann.